A Mammoth Brewery and Pioneer Beer: Thomas Davies

Today, we begin the first in a series exploring some of the brewers on the nineteenth century Toronto beer scene. First up is Thomas Davies Jr., proprietor of the Don Brewery.

I was combing through archives, reading issues of The Toronto World dating from the 1880s. Occasionally, I spotted a few adverts for breweries, including this one:


(advert from The Toronto World, Aug 31, 1881)
(advert from The Toronto World, Aug 31, 1881)

Pioneer Beer? My interest was piqued, and a short time later, I stumbled across this nugget:

On Saturday morning a number of men employed by the Telegraph co. in cutting the tops of the trees which interfered with their wires, commenced operations on a fine row of poplars in front of the Dominion brewery. They were quickly ordered to desist by Mr Davies. Not obeying, the foreman followed by a number of brewery men appeared. The men seized their axes, and it was thought for a moment that an encounter would ensue. The matter was finally compromised by telegraph men agreeing to trim the trees.

(The Toronto World: Monday, October 30, 1882, p. 04)

The image of telegraph maintenance men having a stand-off with brewery workers, waving axes around, was too vivid for me to pass up. I delved into the newspaper archives in earnest now—and caught a vibrant glimpse of the Toronto beer scene, ca. 1881.

To start with, the Mr. Davies who faced down the Telegraph workers was not the same Thomas Davies who produced “pioneer beer” in his “mammoth new brewery.” Disappointing, but that’s the way history goes, sometimes.

They were, however, brothers, sons of Thomas Davies Sr, also a brewer. In 1848 Davies-the-Elder leased the Don Brewery from William and Robert Parks and operated it with Thomas-Davies-the-Younger. After Davies-the-Elder died, Thomas Davies-the-Younger was joined by his brother Robert.

At this point, I yielded to every historian’s instinct.

I checked the census.

The Davies family first shows up in the 1861 census; 55-year-old Thomas Davies Sr is listed as a brewer residing in Toronto. He was born in England; his wife Fidelia, in Ireland. All the children (including 16-year-old Thomas Jr and 12-year-old Robert) are listed as being born in Canada, and they’ve got five horses, fives pigs, and one cow.

Censuses are fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) because they offer a snapshot every ten years. There is a sense of “dropping in” on these families, watching kids appear, marry, grow up…but sometimes the picture feels incomplete.

Thomas Davies Sr. is not listed on the 1871 census; he died in 1869. By this point, Thomas Jr (26) and Robert (22) are both listed as brewers. Since Thomas Jr. was born in 1845, it seems the conventional story is correct—he operated the Don Brewery with his father (not straight away, though—he would’ve been three!), and Robert likely joined him at 20, when their father died.

Let’s jump ahead ten years:

In 1881, Thomas Davies Jr. was doing very well for himself. His brother Robert had left by this point to establish the Dominion Brewery, but business at the Don was booming. This is when that advert for the MAMMOTH NEW BREWERY appeared in the Toronto World. In that same year, the following news snippet also appeared:


Attention is directed to the advertisement of the pioneer lager beer brewers, Messrs Thos. Davies & Co., whose enterprise has been met with such recognition that they have been compelled to build a mammoth new brewery to enable them to supply their numerous customers throughout the Dominion with ales, porter and lager beer. Arrangements have been made to continue brewing in the old brewery until the new one is completed, so that no interruption will be occasioned to the business. They have contracted with Messrs. Booth and Son for the largest amount of copper work that is to be found in any brewery in Canada or United States. Quite a large quantity of machinery not procurable in Canada is being imported from the United States. Some idea of the extent of Messrs. Thos. Davies and Co.’s new brewery may be had from the fact that it will require the annual products of about 10,000 acres of farm land to keep them supplied with barley and hops. The firm yesterday shipped another carload of lager beer, ales, and porter to Winnipeg, being the third shipment made within a short time. The brewery premises occupy about seven acres, and the water supply is obtained from the city water works.

(The Toronto World: Wednesday, August 24, 1881, p. 01)

Very impressive stuff! Davies Jr. was clearly ambitious—I’ll admit to feeling a weird sense of vicarious pride that a Toronto brewer was expanding so much, and sending so much product that far afield.

Don Brewery 1877
Don Brewery 1877

And this is where I like censuses. Newspaper articles are great for tracking businesses and political/social trends, but the census offers a glimpse into the personal lives of past Canadians.

In 1881, Thomas Davies was 36 years old. He was married to a 27-year-old woman named Margaret (she’s also listed as Canadian, though both her parents were Scottish) and they have two sons: 2-year-old Thomas A., and 2-month-old Arthur H. Imagine, all that work happening at the brewery, with a new baby at home!

His mother Fidelia was also still alive at this point, evidently living quite close by and listed as a Methodist.

Robert was also doing well! (The Toronto World: May 14, 1887, p. 07)
Robert was also doing well! (The Toronto World: May 14, 1887, p. 07)

Another ten years on, and Davies is suddenly listed as a Presbyterian—interesting, given Margaret’s Scottish background. Two more sons have joined the family: 9-year-old Franklin, and 6-month-old Gordon.

I read somewhere that Joseph Davies was another brother...I found him on the 1881 census as being 43 years old (7 years older than Thomas), but he doesn't appear in original 1861 census with the rest of the family...but he did name one of his daughters "Fedelia," which does imply a family connection (Thomas Davies's mother was named Fidelia. It's not exactly a common name).
I read somewhere that Joseph Davies was another brother…I found him on the 1881 census as being 43 years old (7 years older than Thomas), but he doesn’t appear in original 1861 census with the rest of the family…but he did name one of his daughters “Fedelia,” which does imply a family connection (Thomas Davies’s mother was named Fidelia. It’s not exactly a common name).

By 1901, though, the picture has changed quite dramatically: Davies is no longer a brewer, but a broker. His son Thomas is a student at the age of 22, which suggests he went to university; Arthur is a clerk; 19-year-old Franklin is also a broker, suggesting he’s joined his father in business; and 11-year-old Gordon is still in school.

The fact that Davies left brewing puzzled me, but the fact that Thomas III was in school at 22 suggested they were doing rather well. But then, I found (on our own website, no less), that the Don Brewery was purchased by the London & Colonial Financial Company in 1889 for $1,200,000.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Inevitably, tracking people through the census hits a sad end. Or a frustrating one. Often, both. People die, or simply disappear from the record. The 1911 census shows no signs of the Davies family, either in Ontario or the rest of the country (though I’m very lucky that I could track Thomas from 1861-1901). Thomas was 66, so he may or may not have still been alive. But as there is no sign of the boys either, I wonder if they moved out of country. The sale of the brewery would have yielded a significant amount of money for the time; I hope they retired somewhere nice.

The humanity that can come from old records is really pretty amazing. From some newspapers and census records, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of Thomas: from the boy who joined his father, through to the man who sold the brewery and moved into brokerage.

Not bad. Not bad at all.


2 thoughts on “A Mammoth Brewery and Pioneer Beer: Thomas Davies

  1. The Davies family did not disappear. Thomas A Davies became an eye, ear nose & throat specialist in Toronto. He was also a respected organist, playing at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor St.

    Gordon became a commercial artist in Toronto. He was acquainted with members of The Group ofSeven.

    Frank became a farmer in Milliken Mills (Markham) raising race horses. His son Stewart trained race horses.

  2. Thomas Davies Sr. Immigrated from Manchester during 1832 with two brothers,Nathaniel, my gr. gr. Grandfather also worked as a brewer in North York on property that is now immediately north of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s